28 Nov Interview with Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf, General Director, Mauritanian Fish Marketing Company (SMCP)
BF: To begin, as a former member and head of government, could you give yourself an overview of the political environment in Mauritania?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Upon assuming office, president Mohammed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani navigated a politically charged atmosphere with a commitment to dialogue, fostering inclusive discussions with all political actors to alleviate tensions. This effort culminated in an agreement on legislative elections, resulting in a diverse Parliament representing 15 out of 27 political parties. The president’s party secured 60% of the seats, reflecting the consultative spirit characterizing his tenure. Substantial strides have been made in human rights and social inclusion, notably for minorities and women.
Economically, despite global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia crisis, Mauritania boasts an impressive 7% growth rate. This success stems from the dynamism of key sectors – agriculture, fishing, mining – and a robust investment plan. Over 40% of the 2024 state budget is allocated to public investment, constituting around 12% of GDP. Strong economic fundamentals are evident, with debt decreasing from 90% of GDP in 2019 to 42% in 2022, a result of prudent fiscal management and debt restructuring. Targeted social programs combat poverty and enhance purchasing power, including salary increases and higher retirement pensions.
Infrastructure development is a priority, with ambitious projects underway in electricity, water, sanitation, and a focus on stimulating employment across sectors. Governance has seen enhanced efforts against corruption, marked by unprecedented reports from the Court of Auditors. Natural resources, particularly gold and hydrocarbons, present promising prospects, despite challenges in projects like the gas venture with BP and Kosmos. The agricultural sector, where I served as minister, undergoes transformation.
In conclusion, optimism surrounds Mauritania’s future. Stable governance, a climate of consultation, and robust economic prospects signal the nation’s trajectory towards sustainable and inclusive development. The primary challenge remains the vast territory and small population, necessitating substantial investments in infrastructure and social services across the expanse.
BF: Mauritania has some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, particularly in the north, in the country’s exclusive economic zone. The industry generally represents between 4 and 10 percent of the country’s GDP and between 30 and 50 percent of its exports. Can you give our readers an overview of the country’s important fishing industry ? What are its main assets and what types of natural resources exist in its waters?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Mauritania boasts exceptional fishing potential, estimated at 1.6 to 1.8 million tons annually. However, this potential remains underutilized, primarily due to the limited anchoring of fishing culture within the Mauritania population. Notably, the pelagic fishing potential stands out and constitutes a substantial portion of our resources.
Challenges persist, notably the imperative to surveil our extensive 700 km coastal zone to curb illegal exploitation by foreign entities. To address this, the government has invested in monitoring and research measures, leveraging institutions like the National Center for Oceanographic Research and Fisheries, alongside the coast guard, to enhance resource management.
The fishing sector is bifurcated into artisanal and industrial sub-sectors, with the former being crucial for employment and the latter for large-scale production. Unlocking our full potential requires substantial investments, particularly in seafood processing – an existing gap that we are actively addressing.
BF: SMCP is the main Mauritanian fish marketing and exporting entity. The business plays a crucial role in the economy and contributes around 4-5% of the country’s GDP. Can you give our readers an overview of the company’s responsibilities and strengths ?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: The Mauritanian Fish Marketing Company (SMCP) was established with the objective of promoting and developing, as well as exporting and marketing fishing products. Historically, it held a monopoly on fish marketing to consolidate producers’ bargaining power, ensure tax revenues, and facilitate foreign currency repatriation. While the company no longer owns the product, it retains exclusive authorization for its export.
Our primary export markets include Europe and Japan, with products reaching up to 60 international markets. “Cephalopods,” particularly octopuses, hold high value, while pelagic fish, although abundant, have a lower value.
Strategic partnerships, notably with the European Union, have been integral to the sector’s development, positioning it as a major ally.
Despite contributing between 4 and 6% to Mauritania’s GDP, the fishing sector remains underexploited, encountering challenges that we are resolute in overcoming. The SMCP plays a pivotal role in marketing and exporting fishery products, making a substantial contribution to the country’s economy.
BF: In December 2022, president Ghazouani commissioned a €15 million seafood complex in Nouadhibou. What are the latest infrastructure improvements made by the government, and what impact have they had on the country’s fishing sector, and what new projects are expected in 2023 and 2024?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: The government’s initiatives in infrastructure improvements have had a significant impact on the fishing sector. Firstly, there has been a consolidation of storage and processing capacity, ensuring effective management from product receipt at the port to its initial preparation. Secondly, there has been a notable emphasis on landing, with a majority of products now processed upon arrival, indicating enhanced control over this critical step.
In terms of storage and conservation, current capacities are deemed satisfactory. However, anticipating an increase in future fishing efforts, additional investments will be essential. The primary challenge lies in the realm of transformation, where ongoing projects are in various stages of development. With an operational project and others in progress, our ambition within the next two to three years is to significantly enhance the added value of our products domestically.
BF: How does SMCP work to apply international standards and regulations in its operations, and how important is compliance with these standards to remain competitive in the international market?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Our primary collaborators, Europe and Japan, set forth stringent criteria for the export of our fishing products. The responsibility for meeting these criteria is not solely shouldered by the SMCP; rather, several institutions contribute to this endeavor. Notably, the coast guard plays a crucial role in ensuring product traceability, including information on origin, date of fishing, and overall legality. These efforts align with the expectations of our esteemed partners.
In terms of quality assurance, a center operating under the Ministry of Fisheries takes charge of inspecting goods, ensuring their adherence to buyers’ standards. Within the SMCP, we enforce strict measures to guarantee that no product is exported without the involvement of the coast guard, validation of all criteria, and scrutiny by our own quality controllers. Each item undergoes meticulous examination, weighing, and certification. Recognizing that each client has unique specifications, we seamlessly integrate with their systems to accommodate their specific requirements. Our consistent adherence to market standards underscores our capability to meet international quality benchmarks.
BF: You say that the Mauritanians are not a people of fishermen. How would you rate the level of skill in the fishing sector in Mauritania? What gaps exist, and what are you doing to fill them? What is the SMCP doing to develop its employees and train its next leaders of tomorrow?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Certainly, I highlighted the historical shift in Mauritanians’ livelihoods from non-fishermen to adaptive and resourceful individuals who successfully reoriented themselves towards the fishing sector. At present, the fishing industry is entirely privatized, with the state abstaining from ownership of trawlers or boats.
Government involvement primarily centers on regulation, quality control, and marketing, allowing the private sector to lead most operational aspects. Public intervention aims to uphold the image of Mauritania and the quality of its products.
Artisanal fishing has emerged as the predominant job-creating sector, with the state implementing various training courses to enhance the skills of workers in this field. Currently, no significant issues are identified in artisanal labor, and operations, depending on the type of boats used, are conducted satisfactorily.
In the industrial sector, two shipyards operate, but certain aspects, particularly specific works, may benefit from optimization, sometimes requiring outsourcing abroad. The population has enthusiastically embraced this sector, recognizing its potential for employment. Notably, a naval academy dedicated to training officers, mechanics, and sailors has been established, with significant investments ensuring a high level of competence in the field.
BF: According to the United States Agency for International Development, Mauritania produces 14 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, with a goal of significantly reducing its emissions by 2030. What is the SMCP or the government to reduce emissions from local fishing operations? What is SMCP doing to promote environmental conservation in its operations? How important is sustainable development in its growth strategy?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Certainly, the question encompasses two significant dimensions. Firstly, it pertains to the reduction of carbon emissions, where three crucial elements deserve attention. Presently, our renewable energy production capacity ranges from 200 to 300 MW, incorporating solar and wind sources. Approximately 30% of our energy mix comprises renewable energies, and ongoing initiatives aim to bolster these figures. These efforts are geared not only towards diminishing our carbon footprint but also reducing dependence on imports, given our lack of local hydrocarbon production.
The second aspect concerns biodiversity and the sustainability of our fisheries resources. A dedicated center conducts regular assessments and oversees the fishing effort. A notable conservation measure is the observation of four months of biological rest each year, split into two two-month sessions. Furthermore, we implement a quota system, assigning each vessel a limit that, once reached, necessitates a cessation of activities. These quotas align with recommendations from the aforementioned research center, exemplifying our commitment to sustainability.
BF: Mauritania mainly exports its fish to Europe, Africa and Japan, with Spain being its largest market. Although the United States is not a primary target market for Mauritanian fishing, some Mauritanian fish is processed in Spain and re-exported to North America. What is the potential of the American market in terms of exports, and what are SMCP and the government doing to create commercial links with this North American country?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Up until now, the American market has not been a direct focus for SMCP. It is accurate that certain products, processed in Europe, especially in Spain, may be re-exported to the United States. However, at SMCP, we are contemplating an expansion strategy towards this North American market. The specific requirements and conditions of the American market are not unfamiliar to us, given our experience with demanding markets like Japan. Nevertheless, the American market has not been a priority thus far, largely because our products find ready buyers in our existing markets.
Recognizing the importance of diversifying our markets and adding value to our production, we consider exploring the US market as a logical step for the future. Our ambition is to establish direct relationships with this market, moving away from reliance on re-export mechanisms via our European partners.
BF: The creation of joint ventures with international partners constitutes an important element of Mauritania’s fishing strategy for 2020-2024. What has been the importance of foreign investments in the development of the fishing sector in Mauritania? What new opportunities do we see that could interest U.S. and foreign investors – particularly in creating more value for Mauritania?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Indeed, 40 to 45% of our fishing potential remains untapped, especially in the pelagic sector. Therefore, two significant areas present themselves for investment. The first pertains to trawlers specializing in pelagic fishing. These investments are substantial, and national actors generally lack the means to undertake them. Their focus is more on cephalopods and less on pelagic fish, which require robust trawlers adapted to ocean depth. The conditions for investors are transparent: by bringing their own vessel, they obtain a license and a fishing quota until our potential is saturated. Agreements can be established, similar to those made with the European Union, where boats come to fish without necessarily unloading all their catch, ensuring the regularity of supplies. This represents a major area of opportunity.
The second investment area pertains to transformation. With modern trawlers, it is possible to land, process, and export the catch. Despite the current framework requiring some improvement, efforts are underway to develop a new investment plan. Additionally, we have a free zone offering rapid facilities for investors wishing to set up. Besides these two areas, marketing also presents an opportunity. However, the primary investments lie in production and processing.
BF: What are your current main priorities as Director General of the Mauritanian Fish Marketing Society and what vision do you have for the Mauritanian fishing sector in the next five to ten years, and what needs to happen for it to reach its potential?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: Within the SMCP, our utmost priority lies in promoting and enhancing our products. In pursuit of this goal, we are actively expanding our initiatives, including the organization of an annual fair in Modibo.
Additionally, we are strategically positioning ourselves at major international fairs in the field. Notably, we recently participated in an event in Vigo, Spain, and have plans for engagements in Barcelona and Boston. These participations are instrumental in conducting market analyses and bolstering our visibility.
We place a strong emphasis on ensuring the quality of our products, seeking recognition and appreciation in the international market. Our dual objective is to ensure effective promotion and to secure optimal valorization. Achieving this requires a profound understanding of market trends, both regionally and internationally, coupled with robust negotiation skills to obtain the best conditions.
In essence, the primary role of the SMCP is to ensure a prominent presence in the market while upholding the quality of our products. Beyond the SMCP, our overarching vision includes the preservation of fishery resources, prudent exploitation of our potential, and the creation of added value and employment opportunities within our territory.
BF: Do you have a final message for our readers?
Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghf: I want to emphasize the exceptional quality of Mauritanian products and their acclaimed status on the global market. Presently, our products, particularly in the cephalopod category, are acknowledged as among the finest. Our aspiration is to actively promote and elevate this product to international acclaim.